There is not much guidance on where or how to buy your components once you have the list of parts you need. My personal recommendation is to look at online retailers such as Newegg or even searching on Amazon. In my experience, online retailers have proven to give me the best prices and usually provide free shipping. If you want to shop around the brick and mortar way, my only advice would be to stay away from bigger retail stores like Best Buy or Fry’s Electronics. When it comes to computer components, brand name does not matter quite as much and these stores are going to sell components made by big names that will have matching price tags.
The very first component you should start searching for is the motherboard. There are a couple reasons for this. First, motherboards come in different sizes. The main sizes are MiniATX and ATX, so we will focus on those. When it comes time to select a computer case you will have to choose one that is compatible with either of these two sizes. Most ATX sized cases are compatible with MiniATX as well since that is the larger size, but if you were to buy a miniATX case and then go with an ATX motherboard you will be forced to either find a smaller motherboard or buy a bigger case.
The second reason the motherboard is your first stop is that this is the central piece of the entire internal ensemble of components. Motherboards are covered in slots and ports into which all the other components will connect. The motherboard will determine the CPU slot type you can buy, the RAM type, hard drive connections, and the slot types of extra components you may need for entertainment or production. So when you search for a motherboard, take note of the following:
- What is its form factor?
- This will determine the size of case you can get
- Which brand of CPU does it accept?
- Motherboards are typically split between Intel or AMD compatible
- Which CPU slot type does it accept?
- Both Intel and AMD CPUs have various slot types, knowing the brand alone is not enough
- How much RAM does it support?
- Motherboards can support anywhere from 4GB of RAM to 64GB for the typical desktop model
- Which RAM types does it accept?
- Like CPUs, sticks of RAM have slot types and speeds that will only work if the motherboard supports them
- Which storage ports does it have and how many?
- The safest bet is to find a motherboard with at least one SATA 6Gb/s port to attach a hard drive, but there are other types to choose from
- Which LAN/WiFi/Bluetooth features come built-in?
- If you do not plan to buy a dedicated network card, finding a motherboard with these built-in features can give you a lot of options and save you from buying more parts
- How many PCI slots does it have?
- These are the main expansion slots used for graphics cards, network cards, and sound cards, so the more available the better your upgrade options
- Which types of PCI slots are available?
- Just like RAM and CPU, PCI slots for various cards come in different sizes and types
What you choose to purchase next does not matter once you have the motherboard selected. I will continue down the list in the order I normally select my components, but feel free to skip ahead if you already know enough and do not need help with certain pieces on this list.
There are two dominant CPU brands available. Intel is a go-to favorite for most who prefer tried and true processors that have been in the game for a long time. AMD is the competing brand that many older professionals tend to shy away from. The truth is, neither is better than the other. Typically, the gaming community will side with AMD which has a reputation for providing more powerful CPUs at a more reasonable price than Intel’s products. Ultimately, the brand you select will be determined by the motherboard you have chosen (unless you decided on a CPU brand first and chose a motherboard based on that, which is common for those loyal to one brand over the other).
The options to look for in a CPU are as follows:
- Number of cores
- Operating frequency (Speed, measured in Ghz)
- L2/L3 Cache
- Number of threads
- Power consumption (Measured in Watts)
- 32-bit or 64-bit support (Majority of new CPUs now support 64-bit)
There are often many other specifications listed for CPUs, but for the sake of simplicity we will only be focusing on the first two options on this list.
The number of cores, in simple terms, determines the multitasking capability of the CPU. The more cores, the more processes that can be handled at one time. This translates to much faster speeds when running multiple applications or processes at the same time, which is also largely affected by RAM.
The operating frequency is the processing speed of the CPU. It is important to note that while the speed advertised does apply to each core, if the CPU is only utilizing one core it does not take advantage of that speed multiplied by the number of cores. For example, a dual-core (2 cores) CPU with an operating frequency of 2.0 Ghz that is only utilizing one core for a single process will not be able to utilize the second core and increase the speed to 2.0 Ghz of processing power. However, if two processes are running, the CPU can run one process through one core at 2.0 Ghz and the other process through the other core at 2.0 Ghz. A single core processor with 2.0 Ghz of speed would be forced to run both processes through its single core, effectively splitting the speed in half for each process.
For those that are intimidated by the specifications of CPUs and may not know how to buy the best one for their new build, this should be the simplest information you need to make that decision. In essence, the more cores you have the more you can run at once. The higher the operating frequency, the faster each core processes information. Therefore, the more cores and higher frequency, the overall better performance you will get. However, the price will increase dramatically as well.
Now on to the next component that will help with speed and multitasking. RAM, or memory, comes in sticks that are slotted into the motherboard and this particular component is relatively cheap compared to the CPU. You can typically find high end sticks of RAM with large amounts of memory for around $50. In addition to being relatively cheap, the only compatibility option you need to look out for is the type and speed supported by the motherboard.
The options to look for in your RAM include:
- Capacity (Measured in GB)
- Type (Indicated by number of pins)
- Speed (Indicated by DDR# followed by another number)
As with CPUs, there are other specifications listed for memory sticks, but for this instructional blog we will just focus on these three most important factors.
The capacity of a stick of RAM is measured in GB. This is the most important determining factor for performance. The higher the capacity, the more your PC will be able to handle running at once and the faster your computer will run when you have many processes running. This is an especially important component to beef up if you are utilizing resource intensive applications like games and development software.
The type and speed of the RAM mostly determines whether the sticks will be compatible with your motherboard. If you are brand new to understanding computer components and how they are named, you can almost always bet that the higher the number the better. The typical type of RAM you will find are 288-Pin, which is merely the type of connection the sticks utilize on the motherboard. Speed is labeled by DDR followed by a single digit number. The most common speed of RAM at the time of writing this is DDR4, which is additionally followed by another four digit number. In this case, the higher the number the better, but what it all boils down to is what your chosen motherboard says it is compatible with and the capacity that it supports.
Hard drives may be the simplest component to shop for next to the power supply. The only thing you need to decide is how much space you need and how many hard drives you want (assuming you chose a motherboard with enough ports). There are, however, two different types of hard drives to choose from that vary wildly in price and performance. The only two factors to consider when shopping for hard drives include:
- Storage Capacity (Measured in GB or TB)
The first is the traditional hard drive disk (HDD). This is the go-to option for those that need massive amounts of space and are very cheap in the grand scheme of things. The downside to this type of hard drive is that they use moving parts, which makes them both loud and vulnerable to damage over time. If they are dropped or suffer heavy use, their performance will fade or they can cease working altogether without warning. They also have a habit of fragmenting data, which slows your computer’s save and load times significantly.
The other type growing in popularity is the solid state drive (SSD). This is the type of hard drive smartphones and tablets utilize, which have no moving parts and can save and load data at much higher speeds. Due to the fact that they use no moving parts, SSDs are far more shock absorbent and last significantly longer than HDDs. The biggest downside of this type of hard drive is that they become extremely expensive with higher storage capacities.
If capacity is of little concern, an SSD will provide the best performance and longevity for the price if you stay below the 256 GB ceiling. If storage capacity matters more than save/load speed and you do not mind a little noise, then the HDD is the option for you. For those that want to get more creative with a medium-sized budget, it is ideal to install your operating system on an SSD and install another HDD to handle storage of files and installation of less load-intensive applications. Just make note of what interfaces your motherboard supports and how many of each, then get creative with your storage solution.
The final universal component we will discuss is the power supply unit (PSU). Chances are, especially for basic home and office build, you will not need a special PSU. In fact, many cases come with them already attached. So unless your build is going to require a hefty amount of wattage, you may want to hold off looking at PSUs until you have selected a case and made sure it does not come with an adequate one. The two factors you will need to pay attention to include:
- Maximum Power
- Form Factor or Type
To determine how much power you need, you will need to look at your CPU’s power requirements along with any additional cards you are adding to the motherboard. Typically, the most power intensive component on any build would be the addition of graphics cards. A good rule of thumb is to assume every universal component requires at least 100W. So the CPU, RAM, hard drive, and motherboard itself would mean you will want at least a 400W PSU. Most graphics cards will tell you, like the CPU, how much wattage they require. So it would be safe to add that amount to the base 400W estimate. As for the form factor, it will usually be labeled as ATX or MiniATX. As long as this size type matches what you chose for your motherboard and case, you will be good to go.
If you decided on an entertainment or production system, this may be the most fun component you will shop for (or the least fun, if your budget is on the tighter side). This will likely be the centerpiece of your entire build. As it should be, because the graphics card will almost single-handedly decide what level of detail your machine can handle in games or how smoothly your production work will flow. The graphics card has five factors that come into play:
- Power Consumption
- Core Clock Speed
- Display Ports
The interface you need will be determined by what interface types are available on the motherboard you have chosen. The most common type at the time of my writing this is the PCI Express 3.0 x16 interface. Power consumption is very important to note. I have burned out a power supply by buying a new graphics card that required more power than my machine was able to handle. This is a good reason to pick your power supply after you have chosen a graphics card. The core clock speed is the primary attribute of the graphics card’s power. The faster the clock speed (measured in MHz), the more it will be able to handle. Likewise, the more memory the graphics card has the more it will be able to handle. Just like RAM, a graphics card’s memory is measured in GB. Finally, if you plan to use multiple monitors or use a certain display port it is wise to make sure you choose a graphics card that supports them. Most higher end graphics cards will have multiple ports, but they will be varying types. It is possible to find cards with multiple ports of the same type, but more often than not you will need to get adapters if you plan to have more than two monitors.
Sound cards are a luxury to all except one using their build for a sound production computer. Gamers may opt to include one in their build since some sound cards boast 3D sound, which would allow a player to hear in-game actions happening around them if they have a sound system or headset that supports this feature. Entertainment systems can benefit from sound cards if the user plans to make use of surround sound that a motherboard’s built-in sound card may not be able to utilize to the fullest. Any other build would gain nothing from a sound card. Sound cards have four factors to look for:
- Sound to Noise Ratio (SNR)
- Sample Rate
The interface, as you may be familiar with by now, is how the sound card will connect to the motherboard. For sound cards, just as it is with graphics cards, the PCI interfaces are the most common. Ports will be very important for sound cards. This will determine what sound inputs, if any, are available if recording will be done, or what sound outputs (such as 3.5mm or digital) can be used. The SNR is one of the two specifications that dictates the quality of sound output. Just as it sounds, SNR is the ratio of sound and noise, noise being unwanted. The higher the SNR, the better the sound quality. The sample rate handles the conversion of analog sound to digital sound. The higher the sample rate, the greater the variation of sound frequencies that will be converted. To give an idea, CD quality sound usually has a sample rate of 48 kHz.
I am much less familiar with TV tuner cards since these are largely obsolete now. For most people, a computer itself with an internet connection is already capable of far more than it would be worth to install a TV tuner to watch local television stations. But, if that’s your plan, then I can at least point you in the right direction. Since a TV tuner only has one job, there is only one real factor you need to consider, but I will extend the list to two since there are some options out there:
- Tuner Capabilities
If you have been following along down the list, the interface should be self-explanatory by now. The real focus of the TV tuner is what capabilities it has that fit your needs. Some may only allow standard definition over-the-air channels, while most should offer the now standard high definition channels. Some will even allow digital cable connections, if you have cable and plan to use your computer as the cable box. The biggest benefit of a TV tuner is the added DVR capabilities it offers. Cable boxes that offer DVR have limited space that cannot be upgraded, but with your own build you can determine how much storage you have for recording shows.
Network cards are a good all-around addition to any machine, except maybe a home office or workstation build. If you spend a little extra on a motherboard, you can get a computer built that has built-in WiFi capability and even bluetooth. If you need something more specialized, a network card is not a bad choice. There are three factors to consider:
- Wireless Standard
- Frequency Band
As usual, the interface is the same to consider how it will connect to the motherboard. The wireless standard will likely be 802.11ac, 802.11b/g/n, or both. Either of these options will work, but 802.11b/g/n will be the newer and faster standard. This is an important consideration because the standard of your network card must match the standard of your router. If your router transmits on the 802.b/g/n standard and your PC is on the 802.11ac standard, they will not communicate. Likewise, there are two frequency bands that WiFi can operate on. The old common band is 2.4Ghz, which many lower end devices still use. Smartphones, laptops, and newer smart TVs are joining computers in using the much faster 5Ghz frequency. So check to make sure your network card uses a frequency that your router will be putting out.
The final “component” is not really anything new, and it applies to all build types. Even home office computers or workstations can benefit from some added storage. This piece of your build has the same considerations as any hard drive. The difference is that additional storage is much easier to implement in the form of a portable hard drive, but this option is more expensive per gigabyte of storage. The cheaper option is actually to buy internal hard drives. However, this does prevent the additional storage from being moved around. It all depends on your planned use. Take this into consideration and weigh your options, but if you have any doubt then you might as well invest in a portable hard drive. This could also serve as a useful backup tool in case your build ends up in the grave sooner than anticipated.
Once you have placed all of your orders, it will take time for everything to arrive. The exception being if you managed to find every component in-store and brought them all home at once. It is definitely a good idea to refrain from unboxing any internal components until you are ready to build. Keep in mind all of these components are very fragile and can be ruined instantly with a single static shock or contact with liquids. When you are ready to learn how to assemble the machine, head on over to part 4 of this instructional blog series.